Dr Rebecca Sandover - Written evidence (FPO0056)



1) What are the key causes of food insecurity in the UK? Can you outline any significant trends in food insecurity in the UK? To what extent (and why) have these challenges persisted over a number of years?


1.0 The issue of food poverty in Exeter

Food Poverty has been on the rise in Exeter. Recent statistics from Exeter Food Bank (EFB) report:

‘The number of emergency food parcels provided by EFB has risen continually each year, and has increased by 138% since 2012/13.  In 2018/19, the foodbank provided three days’ worth of emergency food to 6,878 people, of which 2,158 were children[1].

For more detailed analysis of Food Bank activity in Exeter please see evidence submitted by Laura McIvor from Exeter Food Bank. In conjunction with these food poverty statistics, health indicators in Exeter related to diet are also concerning and provide insights into the effects of poor diets. Almost 30% of children at age 10-11, and more than half of adults, are overweight or obese. Over a third of adults are not eating the recommended 5 a day of fruit and veg and deprived Exeter wards host the highest density of fast food outlets[2].


1.1 The Causes of Food Poverty in Exeter

Two significant causes of food poverty emerged from our interviews with Exeter Food Bank (EFB) clients.


Welfare reform has had significant negative impacts on benefit claimants as they have experienced their benefits being stopped, reduced or benefit applications delayed. These processes have led claimants to experience food and fuel poverty, precarious accommodation and homelessness, ill health and mental ill health, accrue debt and more. Food Bank interviewees reported that welfare systems are confusing, disjointed, slow and failing them when significant life change occurs, i.e. the loss of work through ill health etc. Participants reported that these failures directly led to food bank use, whether for the short term or on a longer term basis. For some interviewees, benefit changes meant that they were ‘forced’ into job searching even though they had debilitating mental ill health and had previously accessed ESA (Employment and Support Allowance). Interviewees reported frustration and desperation in attempting to navigate welfare systems.


Low Income Foodbank interviewees referred to life changes such as job loss and health changes creating crises that led to applications for welfare and subsequent food bank use. Interviewees reported that experiences with insecure work exacerbated food poverty and mental ill health. Interviewees spoke of deep frustration and despair in trying to navigate the welfare system, with one participant still waiting at the time of interview, more than 2 months after application, to hear about its outcome. For some of these EFB Clients who had dependent children, the need for survival created ‘desperation’, ‘stress’ and resulting health impacts. Interviewees frequently used these words to describe their crises situations. Service providers reported that the transition from benefit use to waged incomes also incurred challenges and hardships.



Causes of Food Poverty in Exeter 2018

Welfare Reform

Welfare reform has created significant negative impacts on benefit claimants, resulting in benefits being stopped, reduced or benefit applications delayed.

Precarious Employment

Life changes such as job loss created crises that led to applications for welfare and subsequent food bank use.



Life changes, such as mental ill health and general health issues also created personal crises that led to participants experiencing hardship including food poverty.


Gaps in Support

When crisis hit, EFB Clients experienced gaps in emergency provision and support, plus a lack of information and coordination amongst agencies.

Impacts of Food Poverty related to Food and Nutrition

Self-care Challenges

Clients referred to a general lack of food skills, food education and access to cooking facilities.

Health Challenges

Mental ill health is exacerbated by food insecurity due to experiences of stress and the effects of long term hardship and reliance on food aid. Other health conditions such as diabetes are hard to manage when experiencing food insecurity.


1.2 ‘The whole system is broken’ - overall interviewees referred to systemic failures within the welfare system that lead to food insecurity. Food insecurity creates detrimental impacts on health, mental health and ability to function within mainstream socio-economic systems. Both benefit issues and precarious employment can switch someone experiencing low income to become a vulnerable adult who requires additional services. These issues can trigger mental and general ill health, precarious accommodation, homelessness and food poverty. Switching back towards positive health and employment is a difficult road that requires the intervention of a variety of services and professionals. Access to food and nutritious eating is at the core of establishing positive health and the ability for Exeter residents to work, volunteer and engage positively within communities. Therefore the rise of these challenging issues within Exeter, such as Food Insecurity is detrimental to creating positive communities that contribute to overall Exeter economic and community life.


Our research with Exeter Food Bank does not tell the full extent of food Insecurity in Exeter as the research process did not investigate informal food distribution networks in the city. Food bank referrals alone are not an accurate measure of the full extent of food insecurity as people only turn to them as a last result due to feelings of humiliation or stigma.



2) What are some of the key ways in which diet (including food insecurity) impacts on public health?


2.0 Health and wellbeing Impacts of Food Insecurity

Exeter Food Bank interviewees referred to the health impacts of food poverty, with limited diets being commonly referred to by participants reliant on food bank parcels. Issues arose such as a lack of facilities and income resulting in having to eat cold food – a lack of fresh food –prioritising children’s diets –food tensions and theft in hostels. In addition the overall impact of stress and insecurity created mental health impacts that subsequently impact physical health. Some participants were struggling with chronic health issues such as diabetes and a range of disabilities. Health indicators related to diet are also concerning and also provide insights into the effects of poor diets. Almost 30% of Exeter children at age 10-11, and more than half of adults, are overweight or obese. Over a third of adults are not eating the recommended 5 a day of fruit and veg and deprived Exeter wards host the highest density of fast food outlets[3].


Mental health issues were reported by a number of interviewees primarily those termed ‘Vulnerable Adult’ participants. For this client group, mental health issues, whilst being part of their background that led to food bank use, were exacerbated by their experiences of the welfare system and food poverty. Exeter Food Bank interviewees reported poor experiences with insecure work that exacerbated food poverty and mental ill health. For some participants, benefit changes meant that they were ‘forced’ into job searching even though they had debilitating mental ill health and had previously accessed ESA (Employment and Support Allowance).


2.1 Linked to health, were issues of dependency and disempowerment when being dependent on charity services. Accessing emergency food services, such as food banks and soup kitchens removes dietary control and choice. Exeter Food Bank interviewees expressed a feeling of disempowerment that came with this lack of control. Participants made suggestions to counter balance this, such as opportunities to volunteer and receive income.



3) How accessible is healthy food? What factors or barriers affect people’s ability to consume a healthy diet? Do these factors affect populations living in rural and urban areas differently?


3.0 Access to food is determined by place-based factors such as social, economic and infrastructural facilities within communities. A range of practical and infrastructural factors within both communities and the homes of struggling households can limit access to nutritious food:

- Poor public transport services in rural areas.

- Lack of food shops selling a good range of nutritious products in poorer neighbourhoods

- Lack of cooking facilities in homes. This is a particular issue in poorly equipped rented accommodation and for households experiencing fuel poverty.

- High densities of fast-food outlets are commonly found in more deprived areas.

- There is a rural-urban divide in digital services, creating digital exclusions and impacting people’s ability to navigate the welfare system. A lack of access to digital resources such as broadband and reliable, affordable internet, plus difficulties in accessing community based IT resources, particularly effects people living in rural areas.


3.1 Low-cost food, notably high convenience food may contain little nutritional value, being high in saturated fats and sugar. Adult obesity rates are highest in the most deprived local authorities in Devon.[4]Holiday hunger is a significant factor in struggling families, as children from low-income households are eligible for free school meals during term time, but with little support in the school holidays, some parents struggle to feed their families. This is growing problem in Devon as elsewhere.


4) What role can local authorities play in promoting healthy eating in their local populations, especially among children and young people, and those on lower incomes? How effectively are local authorities able to fulfil their responsibilities to improve the health of people living in their areas? Are you aware of any existing local authority or education initiatives that have been particularly successful (for example, schemes around holiday hunger, providing information on healthy eating, or supporting access to sport and exercise)?


4.0 In Exeter there is will for collective action from 3rd Sector, Charities and Faith-based organisations. However all frontline and charity services lack capacity and resources to come together to work for concerted change. Food Exeter’s ‘Fair Access to Food’ working group is taking action to bring together a cross-sectoral alliance to address Food Insecurity. 3rd Sector organisations and enterprises seeking to address Food Insecurity in Exeter need support to work together effectively. There is a need for greater willingness from Exeter City Council to work in collaboration with these agencies and so effect joined up discussions to support collective action. Part of this approach includes the need to provide further support to stretched frontline services.


Specific recommendations for local authorities include:



4.1 Strategic and community based action is required to address Food Insecurity in Exeter. Community-based services providing food education and reskilling, food services such as community cafes and social food enterprises that improve access to healthy, local food and food sharing could all help in ameliorating the impacts of food poverty. However for services and enterprises to be successful in addressing food poverty in Exeter, an alliance of partners working in this field, including Exeter City Council and Devon County Council, needs to be formed so that best practices are shared and steps towards positive change can be established and implemented. By boosting preventive steps on food poverty and household food insecurity, fewer Exeter residents will experience crisis circumstances, which will not only support individuals but will also improve the wider Exeter community and economy.


4.2 Action from other Local Authorities or similar Bodies

Positive action has been taking place across the UK linked to The Food Power Alliance, Feeding Britain Network and Sustainable Food Cities network. The Brighton and Hove Food Partnership in conjunction with Food Power and The Sustainable Food Cities is an example of this place-based approach. In June 2018 Brighton and Hove Food Partnership launched their Poverty Action Plan 2015-18 that sets out how a strategic approach to welfare reform in Brighton and Hove has helped reduce the impact of welfare changes and that they are working collaboratively with other agencies to measure food insecurity in Brighton and Hove[5]. In May 2018 they set up a permanent community kitchen with courses for people on low-incomes and those with dementia, learning disabilities and mental health issues. The community courses are run by the Food Partnership team and run on a weekday for a number of weeks[6]. Action is also being taken in devolved nations particularly through the work of Food Cardiff, Food Sense Wales and Nourish Scotland. The Programme for Scotland 2019-2020 Fair Food Fund is investing £3.5 million to support responses to food insecurity. This includes holiday hunger programmes through a range of third sector and local authority projects such as the Highland Holiday Hub[7].


5) What can be learnt from food banks and other charitable responses to hunger? What role should they play?


Please see evidence from Exeter Food Bank


10) Can efforts to improve food production sustainability simultaneously offer solutions to improving food insecurity and dietary health in the UK?


10.0 Sustainable food partnerships across the UK are working to achieve sustainable food production whilst also enabling access to food. An example of such a project includes Glasgow’s Urban Roots allotments and cookery schemes that are supporting disadvantaged people to grow their own food and learn cooking skills[8]. Greenwich Co-operative Development Agency support fruit and vegetable market stalls across the Royal Borough of Greenwich where produce is sold at wholesale prices to local residents. Each week a total of 500kg fruit and vegetables are sold at affordable prices to 300 residents and families. They also offer free cookery programmes to support the development of food skills[9].


10.1 Food Exeter are currently running a project to investigate the feasibility of having a Local Food Centre in Exeter that would act as a hub for the supply of local, sustainable fresh food. This model would explore the potential to supply affordable locally and sustainably produced fruit and vegetables to local residents.


11) How effective are any current measures operated or assisted by Government, local authorities, or others to minimise food waste? What further action is required to minimise food waste?


Please see evidence from Exeter Food Bank


13) Has sufficient research been conducted to provide a robust analysis of the links between poverty, food insecurity, health inequalities and the sustainability of food production? How well is existing research on the impact of existing food policy used to inform decision making?


13.0 There is wide spread acknowledgement of the lack of data on food insecurity in the UK. In February it was reported that a national index of food insecurity is to be incorporated into the UK-wide annual survey run by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) that monitors household incomes and living standards. Patrick Butler reported in The Guardian that:


‘The DWP will add 10 questions about food buying and eating habits to its annual Family Resources Survey, which will be sent to 20,000 UK households in April. The data will be reported publicly in March 2021. Experts say the findings will help refine understanding of what drives hunger and food insecurity. The questions, which are based on US measures of food insecurity, will ask whether and how often households skipped meals, were unable to afford healthy food and went hungry or lost weight because they did not have enough money to buy sufficient food.’ Butler, 2019[10]


13.1 At a local level data on food insecurity is very patchy. In Exeter this issue is exacerbated by political structures. Exeter City Council is part of a two tier council structure and so has less responsibility on Public Health than a unitary authority, such as Plymouth City Council or Torbay Council. In 2018 Public Health Devon created a dashboard of Food Poverty indicators in Devon at the request of Food Exeter[11].


14) What can the UK learn from food policy in other countries? Are there examples of strategies which have improved access and affordability of healthy, sustainable food across income groups?


Brazil’s Zero Hunger Programme is widely celebrated for helping reduce food insecurity and reducing hunger. The Brazilian government provided tools, technical assistance, and training and created government run restaurants, food banks and school feeding programmes that were supplied from the food bought directly from the farmers. However the change in political leadership in recent years has seen Brazil once more back on the international map of hunger. New York’s Department of Education is also celebrated for offering innovative approaches to reducing the stigma of food aid by offering universal free school meals. The department offers free breakfast, lunch and afterschool meals to all NYC school students during the school year[12]. 


15)  Are there any additional changes at a national policy level that would help to ensure efforts to improve food insecurity and poor diet, and its impact on public health and the environment, are effectively coordinated, implemented and monitored?


Welfare reform is a key causal factor for a proportion of the increase in food bank need in Exeter (see Exeter Food Bank evidence). Changes to the Universal Credit system are urgently needed particularly the elimination of the waiting time for benefits to be paid. Effective treatment and programmes to support those with mental ill health is urgently needed to help people back to work. Effective support and facilities are needed for those who lack access to IT services when claiming benefits.


Dr. Rebecca Sandover, University of Exeter. This evidence is prepared and submitted in an individual capacity and does not reflect the views of The University of Exeter.


12 September 2019



[1] Statistics available from Exeter Food Bank –Please see Laura McIvor’s submission from Exeter Food Bank for more detailed analysis of recent trends in the statistics.

[2] Statistics available from Public Health Devon – Devon Food Poverty Dashboard 2018

[3] Statistics available from Public Health Devon – Devon Food Poverty Dashboard 2018

[4] Statistics available from Public Health Devon – Devon Food Poverty Dashboard 2018


[5] Brighton and Hove Food Partnership (2019) – See https://bhfood.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/B-Hove-Food-Poverty-Action-Plan-FINAL-Report-on-3-years-June-2018.pdf

[6] Brighton and Hove Food Partnership (2019) – See https://bhfood.org.uk/cookery-school/community-cookery-courses/

[7] Scottish Government (2019) – Protecting Scotland’s Future, Chapter 4: Food Insecurity https://www.gov.scot/publications/protecting-scotlands-future-governments-programme-scotland-2019-20/pages/8/

[8] Urban Root (2019) - https://www.urbanroots.org.uk/workshops/market-garden-and-community-allotments/

[9] GCDA (2019) –Wholesale Markets https://gcda.coop/greenwich-healthy-families/ 


[10] Butler, The Guardian (2019) – ‘UK hunger survey to measure food insecurity’ https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/feb/27/government-to-launch-uk-food-insecurity-index

[11] Food Exeter (2019) - http://foodexeter.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Devon-Food-Poverty-Dashboard-2018.pdf

[12] NYC Dept of Education (2019) https://www.schools.nyc.gov/school-life/food/free-meals-for-all